Ryan Bell and Liberal Theologies

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Ryan Bell and Liberal Theologies

Over the past 12 months, hundreds of news outlets and blog sites have covered Ryan Bell’s “gut-wrenching decision” to leave behind his faith and embrace atheism. Nothing, however, gives us a glimpse inside Bell’s mind like the article he penned for CNN himself. He writes,

I questioned the problem of evils and God’s general silence and inactivity. I sought out more liberal theologies and found them to be the slow death of God. Now I had to face the very real possibility that God does not exist.

When your starting point is wrong, your destination turns out to be wrong. Wrong assumptions birth false conclusions. Bell’s choice of “liberal theologies” can be clearly seen as the cause of his departure from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Christianity altogether.

Fundamentally, liberal theology rejects the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God and the epistemological foundation of all life’s experience. Liberal theology downgrades the authenticity of the Genesis 1-11 account and the miracles of the Bible.

For centuries now, many have shipwrecked their faith on the ever-drying fountains of liberal theology. Many enlightenment/modern theologians based their theological projects on philosophy and human experience. For instance, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the father of modern (liberal) theology, grounded his hermeneutic theory on human feelings—theology was anthropology.

For Emil Brunner (1889-1966), truth was an encounter experience. Describing encounter theology, Adventist theologian Raoul Dederen says,

In this case [encounter theology], one approaches Scripture with the a priori view that there is no truth content when God and the prophet meet. God is not supposed to reveal truths to a prophet, but Himself. Once the encounter is over, the prophet interprets the encounter in terms relevant to the situation. Thus God did not reveal truths to Moses, but Himself. Moses then translated the encounter in laws and precepts relevant to a people of slaves.

Speaking of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), “probably the single most influential theologian of the second half of the 20th century,” Dederen adds,

As [Bultmann] sees it, not only did the New Testament authors write about God and reality in terms that reflected the popularly held views of the first century—which are untenable today—but their writings are not even to be regarded as objective and reliable accounts of what happened in their lives. What they wrote, explains Bultmann, is in reality an account of the impact these occurrences had upon them. Just an impact. I mean events like the incarnation of Christ, the virgin birth, the Transfiguration, most of the Lord’s miracles and teachings. These have to be “demythologized,” which does not mean eliminated but reintegrated in terms and categories relevant to the modern and scientific world in which we live. Thus, for instance, the apostles’ statements about Christ’s resurrection and ascension were not intended to tell us that Jesus did in fact come to life again, but that they had been resurrected, lifted from their self-centered lives. These were not objective occurrences, says Bultmann, but dynamic impacts that followed Christ’s death on the cross—which he recognizes—and changed their lives, opening them to the future, as he liked to explain.

Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) rejection of propositional revelation (except on the attributes of God) resulted in his epistemological conundrum whereby the Bible is simply a witness to revelation. He undermines the authority of Scripture as the Word of God and contradicts himself when he uses the Bible to teach us the truth. For Barth, the Bible contains the word of God, but it is NOT the word of God.

Describing Karl Barth’s attempt to come back to orthodoxy, David L. Allen provides this insightful comment:

Barthian neo-orthodoxy got sidetracked and never quite made it completely back home. Barth missed a sign along the road and somehow detoured from Authority Avenue onto Kantian Boulevard. It was an easy mistake to make, after all, his roadmap was Kant’s epistemology and most of the other travelers were taking the same road. At first wide and well-paved, it soon began to narrow, potholes appeared, and eventually it lead to a dead end. Barth’s back seat Biblical Theology passengers were left scratching their heads, failing to realize that the problem was their continued trust in the Kantian roadmap. According to the roadmap, there were certain things which KANT be done, namely, the words of Scripture KANT be the objective revelation of God and hence KANT lead to the Father’s house of Transcendence. It was the old story “you just KANT get there from here!”

As Allen noted, the theological/philosophical leanings of many of these theologians can be attributed to the influence of Immanuel Kant. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Kantian philosophy was sending seismic waves throughout continental Europe. Kant had thought to reconcile the intellectual war between the rationalists and empiricists. Among other things, he had also attempted to break through from sensory appearances or phenomena to the world of noumena, the thing in itself—only to concede that this is not attainable and, therefore, it is impossible to truly know God, even through the Scriptures.

This conclusion had far-reaching consequences. It can be felt not only in the works of the theologians described above but also in the philosophical discourses of people like Friedrich Nietzsche and his “Parable of the Madman.” We can also see it in the works of Søren Kierkegaard and the growth of existentialism with an emphasis on the here and now.

Liberal theologies are not new phenomena. Starting in the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve by questioning and doubting the word of God: “Has God said?” (Gen. 3:1). The result of that doubt is all the ongoing suffering and pain in this world. It remains a warning to all of us involved in the Great Controversy—the war between Christ and Satan.

It is unfortunate that Bell chose the doubting path of liberal theologies, but our thoughts and prayers remain with him, trusting the Holy Spirit to continuously point him to the sufficiency and veracity of Scripture and the infinite love of God.

[Photo credit: Video still of Ryan Bell from A Year Without God: The Film]

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Valmy Karemera is associate editor of The Compass Magazine and posts daily news updates on the Compass Twitter page. Originally from Rwanda, he now lives and works in Texas with his family.